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Cahokia in North America

In 1811, a lawyer and amateur historian named Henry Brackenridge “discovered” the Cahokia mounds and wrote a detailed account of the place to a friend, then president Thomas Jefferson. His discovery, however, was largely ignored by the American public even after his accounts of the site were published in newspapers. Interest for it was only revived in the second half of the twentieth century. Over the years, many of the Cahokia mounds failed to survive the ravages of time after these were flattened to give way to farms, houses, and shops. Luckily, a sizable number of these mounds still exist to provide valuable information about the place called Cahokia, as well as the people who once lived there. Cahokia is recorded on the Bible Timeline Chart with World History around 1200 AD.

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Cahokia was an ancient Mississippian culture and place that flourished between 1000 and 1400 along the banks of the Mississippi River near present-day Collinsville, Illinois and St. Louis, Missouri. It started as a small agricultural community which depended on the cultivation of corn. It grew over the years to become the largest trade center in the northeastern part of present-day United States. Henry Brackenridge estimated that at its peak, Cahokia was home to around 10,000 to 12,000 people. Recent research concluded that the population ranged from anywhere between 10,000 and 30,000, which meant that Cahokia was one of the largest prehistoric communities in North America. Religious leaders, secular rulers, merchants, farmers and hunters made up the highly organized and complex Cahokian society.

“Monks Mound in summer. The concrete staircase follows the approximate course of the ancient wooden stairs”

Cahokian Mounds

The hallmark of the Mississippian Culture, particularly in Cahokia, was the presence of the enormous earth mounds. Based on the size of the earthworks built on the site, the Cahokia community possessed a large labor force that built these massive mounds. These were of different shapes and sizes. Some of the most common were the platform mounds. These angled earthworks were usually square or rectangular at the base and featured a flat top where storehouses, temples, royal palaces, or charnel houses once stood.

The height and size of the platform mound were determined by the status of its occupant, so that the higher the mound, the higher the occupant’s status was in society. The largest and tallest of these was the Monks Mound which was named after the Trappist Monks who occupied it in the 19th century. It was constructed at the center of the archeological site as a four-leveled terrace. A palisade or defensive wall enclosed the Monks Mound as well as the other sizable mounds within Cahokia proper (the center of the city). This meant that the Monks Mound was possibly the site of a royal residence. Smaller platform mounds that were occupied by farmers, tradesmen, and merchants surrounded the palisade.

Cone-shaped and ridge-top (hayrick) mounds were also present in Cahokia. The two other types of mounds served different purposes. Cone-shaped mounds had circular bases with softly rounded tops. These often served as burial mounds. Ridge-top mounds featured rectangular bases that rose to a narrow ridge at the top and served as markers for the communities and sometimes, burials grounds.

Fowler, Melvin L. The Cahokia Atlas: A Historical Atlas of Cahokia Archaeology. Urbana, IL: Illinois Transportation Archeological Research Program, University of Illinois, 1997.
Hodges, Glenn. “America’s Forgotten City.” National Geographic Magazine – January 2011.
The Mound Builders: The Greatest Monument of Prehistoric Man: Cahokia or Monks Mound. 1913.
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